HOUSTON — A Houston area health department doctor accused by prosecutors of stealing nine doses of coronavirus vaccine from a damaged vial and administering them to family and friends insists he did nothing wrong and was only trying to ensure the vaccine was not wasted, his attorney said Thursday.
Authorities allege that Hasan Gokal, who worked for Harris County Public Health, stole a vial of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine while working at a vaccination site at a suburban Houston park on Dec. 29.
Gokal told a health department employee earlier this month that “he had taken a punctured vial of the Moderna vaccine … at the end of operations and that he took the vial offsite and vaccinated his friends and family,” according to a probable cause complaint.
Prosecutors determined Gokal, 48, had given the vaccine to nine individuals, including his wife, according to the complaint.
“He abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”
Paul Doyle, an attorney for Gokal, called his client a “dedicated public servant who ensured that COVID-19 vaccine dosages that would have otherwise expired went into the arms of people who met the criteria for receiving it.
“Harris County would have preferred Dr. Gokal let the vaccines go to waste and are attempting to disparage this man’s reputation in the process to support this policy. We look forward to our day in court to right this wrong,” Doyle said in a statement.
Gokal was fired after an internal investigation by the health department.
Authorities said Gokal disregarded rules related to punctured vaccine vials with viable doses that direct employees to ensure that such doses are brought back to the main office so they can be administered to at-risk front-line workers, including health care employees and police officers, and to vulnerable populations.
The mishandling of vaccine can result in the loss of government funding to the county, according to the health department.
Gokal is facing a misdemeanour charge of theft by a public servant. If convicted, he faces up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
In Wisconsin, a pharmacist was arrested in December after being accused of ruining 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine because he allegedly believed the vaccine would mutate recipients’ DNA.
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Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press